Michigan State's football-basketball combo is tough to top
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Tom Izzo's basketball team is undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the nation, and right now has to settle for second billing on its own campus.
That's how high the bar has been raised at Michigan State.
It's the football Spartans who are tantalizingly close to a national championship, capping what has been a spectacular 2015 for the two most popular teams in East Lansing. Back in March, Izzo led Michigan State's basketball team to the Final Four for the seventh time, and now the school has reached the same stage in football after winning the Big Ten title earlier this month.
''I think we've both kind of earned our keep,'' Izzo said. ''We're both kind of walking in similar territory.''
Long considered a blue-collar underdog in a region that includes Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State, Michigan State has emerged lately as an athletic powerhouse, with title contenders in the two most lucrative college sports. Izzo's program has been outstanding for a long time while coach Mark Dantonio's football team has become a mainstay in the top 10 over the past three seasons.
''When Michigan State is out there, whether it's basketball, whether it's football, whether it's academics, or anything, obviously it's a positive,'' Dantonio said, shortly before his team beat Iowa for the Big Ten championship. ''That's what we represent.''
If the Spartans and Oklahoma make it to the national championship game in football, maybe they should set up a doubleheader with the basketball teams. The Sooners are also undefeated in basketball and ranked third in the country.
The Spartans clearly have a ways to go in both sports to match the run by Florida. The Gators won the 2005-06 basketball title and followed with the 2006 football championship. Then Florida came back with a second straight basketball crown in the 2006-07 season.
Michigan State's success is still a bit of a novelty, and fans and alums aren't taking it for granted. Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors and Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers are quick to chime in on social media when the Spartans give the alumni something to celebrate.
From Green and Bell to Magic Johnson and Jason Richardson, former Michigan State athletes are giddy over the Spartans' accomplishments.
''It's been amazing. I can't leave my couch. I'm actually gaining weight right now,'' said Richardson, who was part of the Michigan State basketball team that won the national title in 2000. ''It's amazing to see both programs at elite status. That's what you want for your university, especially the basketball program and now the football program is joining the elite ranks. You can't ask for anything more.''
The third-ranked Spartans will play second-ranked Alabama in a national football semifinal Dec. 31. One big question is whether Izzo and his players will be there. He was still uncertain as of last week.
''I know my heart wants to,'' Izzo said. ''My heart wants to take the whole team, the secretaries and everybody else with us, because it would be an incredible experience.''
Izzo says his basketball team can learn from the challenges the football team faces, and vice versa. The football team upset Ohio State last month around the same time the basketball team beat Kansas.
As the showdown against Alabama draws nearer, the Spartans can sense what their opportunity means for those who have supported Michigan State for so long. Defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun is careful not to take too much credit for the revitalization of the football team.
''It wasn't us who built this program and made this program into what it is. It's been those Spartans that's been in the past,'' he said. ''It didn't start with the 2011 class. It didn't start with the 2009, the 2007 class. It started way before then. It's a lot of former Spartans that helped pave the way for us.''
Now Michigan State is the envy of so many other athletic departments, and anyone associated with the school is in a position to benefit.
''I've always thought that Michigan State had a brand,'' Dantonio said. ''Right now, it's certainly talked about often relative to what's going on here athletically, and with our university in general and everything else, so it's very positive. But I've always thought we had a great name out there.''
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org
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